www.tcpalm.com By Colleen Wixon
There is a pattern of abuse, neglect and humiliation.
That's what more than 100 parents of autistic children in Florida are telling the state attorney general's office and anyone who will listen.
The parents and others claim children with autism are being mistreated — in some cases physically harmed — by teachers and staff who are supposed to be helping them. On the Treasure Coast alone, there are two potential lawsuits against the St. Lucie County School District by parents of autistic children.
"These aren't isolated incidents. This is an epidemic," said Port St. Lucie parent Anna Moore, who says her then-7-year-old autistic son was mistreated by staff at his school in 2007. "It's time it stops."
School officials say they provide training to teachers, but other educators and parents say it might not be enough.
The parents who have called the state to complain say they're frustrated no one has done anything to help. Meanwhile, their children come home with emotional and sometimes physical scars.
But Alex Barton has opened doors for parents of autistic children to get their message heard, said Palm Beach parent Phyllis Musumeci, mother of a teenage autistic boy.
Alex is the 5-year-old Port St. Lucie boy voted out of his Morningside Elementary classroom in May. Because of his case, the state Attorney General's office began an investigation into how autistic children are treated in schools. The office is trying to set up a meeting to talk with parents and others.
Moore and Barton, who have both filed notices they intend to sue the St. Lucie County School District, are not alone.
More than 100 people throughout the state called the office, including at least a half-dozen from the Treasure Coast. Attorney general's office spokeswoman Sandi Copes said arranging a meeting is difficult because so many want to attend.
A major complaint among many parents is the use of restraints on their children. Others report their child was placed in isolation. This year, several autistic children died after being restrained. In 2007, six complaints were filed with the state Department of Education related to the use of restraints or seclusion rooms.
Educators say sometimes autistic children must be restrained to protect staff members and other students from an aggressive child.
And school districts say they try to ensure teachers get the right kind of training so there aren't problems. Even general education teachers are offered training in case a child with autism is placed in their classrooms.
"The goal is to ensure those working with students with autism spectrum disorder are provided the necessary support, tools and strategies to meet the student's individual needs in varying environments," said Maryellen Quinn-Lunny, executive director of exceptional student education and student services for Martin County Schools.
But some parents and national groups don't think schools do enough.
"They're just not prepared for some of these kids," said Musumeci, who says her then-12-year-old autistic son was restrained 89 times in 14 months and, on one occasion, put in a closet during music class. "I think people lose their patience, they lose their temper."
The Autism National Committee asks on its Web site for national and state agencies, Congress and state legislatures to investigate the use of restraints and to help families.
"It is clear that individuals' sometimes desperate efforts to communicate are ignored while staff force compliance for oftentimes trivial reasons; that the cumulative effects of repeated restraint can lead to diminished self-image and negative attitudes; and that when restraint is used, struggle is provoked and this natural response increases the danger of physical injury," the committee writes in its position on restraints, printed on its Web site.
Part of the problem for schools is finding teachers for autistic children can be difficult — the state Department of Education lists autism as a critical shortage area along with science and math.
The Florida Atlantic University Center for Autism and Related Disorders provides training to districts and anyone else who asks.
About 90 teachers — from the Treasure Coast and as far away as Miami and Marion County — attended the center's second annual free summer teacher institute in July.
The center's director, Jack Scott, and many of the parents reporting complaints admit teaching a child with autism is tough. Traits such as constant hand-flapping or a repetition of the same phrase can be difficult to handle, Scott said at the institute.
That's why training is so important, said national author of autism books and father of an autistic boy Bill Davis.
Teachers either don't understand the disorder, or they have no help in their classrooms, he said. And that often leads to restraining or placing a child in a room by himself.
The state allows school staff to use reasonable force against a student under certain circumstances. But the state Board of Education will consider on Oct. 21 changing to allow the use of restraints and seclusion only when the child is in danger of hurting himself, others or property.
Merrill Winston, director of program development for Sunrise-based Professional Crisis Management Association, which developed a behavior management system for special needs children, said prone face-down restraint holds effectively protect students and others.
But the holds can only be done after extensive training, he said. And the child must be on a thick foam mat, not on the floor and not with a teacher sitting on him, he said. Too often, the technique is used by someone who doesn't know the proper method or restraints are used before other alternatives, he said.
Davis said teachers have gotten better over the years, and there is greater understanding of autism.
But with autistic children, many teachers are still in the dark ages, he said. They don't comprehend their students.
"It's a teacher's job to get into his world," Davis said.
And, many parents of these children say, that just doesn't happen.
• Parents can talk about a proposed rule that would allow use of restraints and seclusion techniques only when a student is in imminent danger of hurting himself, others or property. A conference call takes place from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Aug. 26. Call (888) 808-6959, conference code 4617163.
• The Office of the Attorney General is inter´ested in talking with parents of children with autism who have concerns about their child’s treatment in schools. Parents can call (866) 966-7226. The office wants to set up a meeting with these parents in the next few weeks.
WHAT DO TEACHERS LEARN?
The Florida Atlantic University Center for Autism and Related Disorders summer institute gave autism teachers two days of training. Here’s a look at some of what they learned:
• Post visual schedules in the classroom so students can see what’s coming next.
• Establish a set routine — even a fire drill or a break in predictability can set off an autistic child.
• Adjust the environmental stimuli as needed — flickering fluorescent lighting can be a dis´traction.
• Anticipate problems — too much down time can cause an autistic child to find ways to self-stimulate. Give him something to do.
• Provide a "safe space" where a child about to have a meltdown can go to self-soothe and calm down.
• The Florida Atlantic University Center for Autism and Related Disorders provides training to educators and others on how to work with autistic children. For details, call (888) 632-6395 or state toll-free (800) 9-autism.
• Martin County School District conducts regular individual training around the specific needs of individual students with autism, said Maryellen Quinn-Lunny, the district’s executive director of exceptional student education and student services. Each school has a core staff group with extensive autism training, she said. The district also gives training and sup´port for parents.
• Indian River County School District also gives regular training to its autism training as well as to general education teachers who may have autistic students, said Larry Harrah, the district’s executive director of exceptional student education.
• Sunrise-based Professional Crisis Management Association trains instructors on the use of restraint holds and other behavior management techniques. The company also arranges instructors to help train parents of autistic children looking for help at home.
Go to this link and ask the candidates there views on what going on in this district. Scroll down on page to fine school district 1 and click on link. Names and pictures of candidates will come up.